6 min read

Can Norton AntiTrack buy you online privacy?

What value do you place on your online privacy? For NZ$65 a year Norton AntiTrack aims to frustrate trackers. How did it do in testing?
Norton AntiTrack.

What is Norton AntiTrack?

Norton says AntiTrack is an app and browser that lets you "take control of your online privacy and keep your data private". It's not security software in the strict sense of that term, although better privacy can help you stay safe online.

While it does what it says, there are cheaper ways of staying private online.

Until recently AntiTrack was only available for Windows computers. This review looks at the new Mac version.

Why might you want to frustrate trackers?

Norton's sales pitch is simple: Everything you do online is tracked.

Your online actions are recorded and used to build a profile so that, at the benign end of the spectrum, online retailers can sell you more things.

At the more sinister end of the spectrum they can use the data you unwittingly hand over to influence you, manipulate you or even commit crimes.

AntiTrack makes their job harder. Depending on how you use it, it may not eliminate privacy risks, but it stops you from being an easy target.

Fingerprinting is the key

It does this in a handful of ways, top of the list is its ability to confuse fingerprinting.

Fingerprinting is a way websites and data collection companies watch you. When your browser opens a website, the site can request information about your computer and browser.

This was originally meant to give the website the information it needs to give you better looking web pages.

The website can see the fonts you use, your browser name and its software version numbers, screen resolution and lots of other data. It knows your operating system, something about your hardware and the apps on your device.

There are enough different types of information and enough variations of each type that most browsers have a unique fingerprint. This can be used to recognise and follow you as you move from one site or task to another.

Your online fingerprint is your online identity

Then, when you visit a site that is somewhere in the orbit of a fingerprinter, it might ask for personal identity information: say you log-in to an online store or sign-up for something. At this point they have all they need to identify you and track all your online activity.

As you move from site to site fingerprinters - there are many of them - can build a vast database of intimate and personal information.

Fingerprinters can know more about you than your closest friends or relations. A famous example is that certain online companies know a woman is pregnant before she does.

They know when people are ripe to be approached by a sales person and can have a reasonable idea of where a person is at any given moment if they are online.

Fingerprinting explains why you might search for, say, a pair of shoes on one site, then spend the next day being stalked by shoe advertisements as you visit other sites.

There are more sinister ways this information can be used. The information can be used by organisations to influence your opinions, fingerprinters can know exactly the right itches to scratch to make you angry. They know the messages to send to get you to the voting booth. In oppressive regimes, say one where homosexuality is illegal, the data can give officials enough to make your life a misery or worse.

How well does AntiTrack protect you from fingerprinting?

The simple answer is: 'It depends'.

I tested Norton AntiTrack on a MacBook Pro at the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Cover Your Tracks site. As the site says, it lets you test your browser to see how protected you are from fingerprinting.

First I tested without AntiTrack. This is the Mac version of the software so I used Apple's Safari browser with prevent cross site tracking and hide IP address from trackers turned on.

The results from Cover Your Tracks showed that, without AntiTrack, I'm not a complete pushover:

  • one in 98369 browsers have the same fingerprint as yours.
  • 16.59 bits of identifying information.

That's probably enough for trackers to work with, but doesn't make their lives easy.

With AntiTrack the result was much the same:

  • one in 98434 browsers have the same fingerprint as yours.
  • 16.59 bits of identifying information.

I'm still unique

Next I looked at AmIUnique.

It tells me that I am "unique among the 1620172 fingerprints in our entire dataset".

Again the number didn't change with or without AntiTrack switched on.

See Fingerprint in action.

Fingerprint demonstrates how web sites can give you a unique identifier. It recognised me with or without Norton AntiTrack.

Based on these tests, it looks like AntiTrack is unable to provide comprehensive protection from tracking. However, the next stage of testing was considerably more reassuring.

In everyday use

My tests were all special cases, what about everyday use?

When you install the app on a Mac, it adds an icon to the bar at the top of Safari.

As you visit various sites, a number appears on the icon telling you how many fingerprinters it block on a page. This number can range from zero, to ridiculously high numbers. Here's a sample.

  • Stuff.co.nz has 22 active trackers.
  • The NZ Herald site has 41.
  • News.com.au has 50.
  • RNZ has 10 (which is a lot for a site that isn't selling anything.)
  • Twitter has 1.
  • Xero has 32.
  • Mirror.co.uk has a whopping 62 trackers.

There's no need to get excited about these numbers. AntiTrack reports my site has four trackers, but, to my knowledge, none of them collect any personal data. I certainly don't collect any personal data.

Norton AntiTrack pop-up screen.
Norton likes to use trackers on its own site.

Getting untracked

If you click on the AntiTrack icon, a pop-up window appears with information about the site. You can click through to get more detail on who is tracking your activities. In many cases you'll see the same old usual suspects again and again although there are a few oddballs among them.

AntiTrack breaks down the trackers into categories, not that this makes any difference.

There's button to fix the site if it isn't working properly. This happens a lot of the time. The price of increased privacy isn't restricted to Norton AntiTrack's annual subscription, you'll find things break.

After a while I forgot AntiTrack was doing this and would occasionally stare blankly at a website that's not working as expected before realising why.

Clicking the button causes AntiTrack to attempt a fix, this might mean allowing one or more trackers though its defence. When it does this, AntiTrack feeds the allowed trackers false information to throw them off your scent.

If you have a lot of trouble with an important page you can set AntiTrack to ignore that page and let the trackers rip. I found myself doing this with online forums which struggle to work without trackers.

You can also click through to get a report on AntiTrack's activity. It will tell you which sites are the greediest when it comes to tracking - Daily Mirror online I'm looking at you. My report tells me AntiTrack has blocked 10,489 trackers so far this month (I'm writing this on the 8th) which gives you an idea how much is going on.

Norton AntiTrack Verdict

AntiTrack does what it says on the box, it will stop sites from tracking your online activity. Whether this is enough to give you comprehensive privacy is questionable, but it makes trackers' lives harder. It does this without interfering too much with your online life.

You'll need to decide for yourself if that is worth NZ$65 a year. You can buy it online direct from Norton.

There are alternatives. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger is free, but not available for Safari. I've been using Ghostery on my Mac. It's free and performance is on a par with AntiTrack.

The other consideration is to choose a more private browser. Safari gives you better privacy than Firefox. Firefox has better privacy than Chrome or Edge.